As the #EqualityAct finds itself caught in polarized American politics on LGBTQ+ issues, “religious exemption” bills are popping up everywhere in the United States. Four weeks ago, the New York Times ran an article titled, “In Statehouses Everywhere, Republicans Have One Agenda Legislators are targeting young queer people trying to live their lives safely, and in peace”.
In this iteration of my “Global Pulse for Equality interviews” we remain in the United States to focus on Missouri for a conversation with Timothy Shepard. Shepard, who is an openly gay democrat politician, is running for election to the U.S. Senate to represent Missouri in 2022 and has been a long time activist on LGBTQ+ equality in the state. He tells us more about anti-LGBTQ+ bills that are currently proposed in the state.
Timothy, can you tell us what a religious exemption bill is in a few words? And which ones are being considered specifically in your state? What happened to the bill on adoption, which popped up in Missouri last year?
Usually, it translates into an institution using state funds to discriminate against a particular group or class of people to justify that their sincerely held belief structure supersedes the group’s rights being discriminated against. As such, they argue they should remain eligible for the state’s funding despite the state’s mandate to not discriminate against any class.
Concerning last year’s bill, Missouri House Bill NO. 2043 of the 100th general assembly, Representative Ben Baker introduced a new section of Missouri’s Adoption Protection Act, the purpose of which was to allow religious adoption placement agencies in Missouri to lawfully decline to place children with LGBTQ people while continuing to receive Missouri state funding for their services. Fortunately, this discriminatory bill didn’t make it out of committee, most likely due to its incompatibility with Federal law.
Is H.B.33 a homegrown effort or an export from outside the state? And if so, who is behind it?
Representative Suzie Pollock is the sponsor of Missouri HB 33. This particular bill is bad news for parents and trans-identifying children. If passed, it will bar medical professionals from prescribing hormone blockers that many opt for as they determine their options about what to do about gender identity. It’s very similar to a bill in Alabama lending credibility to the argument that it’s a coordinated effort.
Combining that similarity and the Anti-trans sports bills in the Missouri legislature and several other states does paint a picture of a coordinated effort of far right-wing organizations and think tanks.
In addition, there is a proposed bill that would penalize or criminalize medical professionals who provide services to young trans and nonbinary people? What is the status of this?
HB 33 is the medical bill that would criminalize medical professionals for providing services to trans youth; at the time of this article publishing, there will have been a second hearing in Jefferson City where people can give in-person and written testimony for or against the bill. Several other bills in the Missouri House and Senate discriminate against trans youth in high school athletics.
Do you think any of these bills have a real chance to pass?
Fortunately, I’m hopeful that this crop of bills doesn’t have a real chance of passing at this time. In fact, there is legislation in Missouri that will codify in state law protections for LGBTQ individuals in employment and housing. And there’s also a bill proposed that, if passed, will ban conversion therapy on minors which indicates progress is actually being made. What does concern me is the Missouri Republicans’ supermajorities’ willingness to continue bringing these bills up as a mechanism to divide the country further and foment unrest and anger that leads to sedition, the likes of which we saw on January 6th.
What are local activists like yourselves doing to put a stop to the alarming rise in this type of legislation that is being proposed around the nation?
There is a great organization in Missouri called PROMO, which alerts activists from across the state to get to the capitol and give testimony against these bills when they come up. Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, which has a strong chapter in Saint Louis, are also a major force in defending LBGTQ equality. There is also a strong coalition of people, including LGBTQ Chambers, the Missouri Realtors Association, and LGBTQ activist who are working hard to pass protections at the municipal levels all across the region so that when bills like the Equality Act at the national level or MONA or bills like the one baring conversion therapy on minors at the state level here in Missouri can pass with ease.
What role can the private sector play in your opinion? Is the private sector in Missouri involved in similar social issues?
Here in Missouri, I’ve seen the Missouri Realtors Association as one of the biggest private-sector champions of LGBTQ equality. I’d like to see more private sector involvement in championing equality for all citizens in Missouri. When I lived in Tennessee, thanks to my training with OutLeadership, I was a key influencer as Chair of the LGBTQ employee resource group in lobbying my employer to take action for LGBTQ equality in a letter to the Tennessee legislature. That action paved the way for most other large private sector actors in the state to join. It was extremely successful in preventing a slate of seven discriminatory bills from getting to the floor for a vote. It’s evident to me that the business community has a major role to play in the fight for human rights and equality as well as enhancing their state’s reputations as a great place to live and work which is crucial to the growth of a state’s economy, including their ability to retain and attract major employers.
You are running for Senate as an openly gay candidate in an obviously conservative state? Can you tell us more about your motivations?
Historically, Missouri has prided itself on its status as a true bellwether with a split-ticket voting streak. My analysis of the data actually indicates to me that it is still very much the case. When Missouri became a state, we made the ‘Missouri Compromise’, entering the union as a slave state, which activated the abolitionist movement in the north and galvanized support for all Americans’ human rights. It’s my goal starting in 2022 that we can see Missouri UnCompromised. Meaning that once again, Missouri is at the heart of the debate in this country of how we want to be known as Americans. Will we be the people who hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal? Or will we compromise human rights in exchange for the profit and comfort of a few at the top? I think Missourians are ready to prove to America and the world that our values are squarely on the side of equality and freedom for all.